Being in prison should be tough. But it shouldn’t be an opportunity for unscrupulous business practices that add financial punishment to time behind bars.

Carrollton-based Securus Technologies provides phone service for inmates at 3,400 correctional facilities across the country. This is big business. Securus handled 240 million calls last year and brought in $700 million. That revenue number is large because the price of prison phone calls is astronomical. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times last month, Securus charges as much as $24.82 for a 15-minute call.

The company doesn’t keep all that money. As is common industry practice, Securus sends a portion of its fees back to the prisons is serves. The parties to these arrangements call that a commission. Critics call it a kickback. In either case, it’s an extra expense to inmates that can account for up to 90% of the cost of a call.

We think Securus should reduce its rates for three reasons.

The first is fairness. We’re all for giving corporations the latitude to negotiate the best prices they can get, but the idea of negotiation implies that both parties have agency. That’s not the case here. Inmates can’t shop for phone service and they can’t use their collective buying power to change their rate. So their only choice is between paying high fees or foregoing phone calls.

Which brings us to reason number two: recidivism. Support networks are vital to ex-cons, so keeping in touch with family and friends is an important component in helping inmates endure their sentence and land on their feet when released.

We’ll give Securus some credit. The company says it has reduced phone rates by 14% in the last year. But the public demand for reform is outpacing Securus’ willingness to reduce prices. New York City and San Francisco have passed measures ensuring that all phone calls from jails would be free. Connecticut is considering a bill that would do the same. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which does not contract with Securus, decided in February to cap rates at 6 cents per minute.

Keep in mind we live in an age when charges for long-distance calls are a distant memory. There need to be restrictions on inmate communication. But punitive charges that disconnect inmates from family or, more likely, add a major financial burden to families of inmates are unjust in themselves.

The pace of legislative action here suggests that Securus may have already missed the opportunity to self-correct. And that’s the third reason for Securus to take decisive action now: so that the government doesn’t have to. We hope the company takes steps right away to decrease the need for an even heavier regulatory hand.

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©2019 The Dallas Morning News

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